Claire Slack, Heritage Officer, explores symbols of love in places of burial.
Cemeteries and graveyards might not seem like the most romantic spaces, but symbols of love can be found almost everywhere in places of burial. From the funeral itself and the messages and symbols carved on the headstones, to the tributes left afterward, burial places are a constant reminder of the love that the living have for those who died.
Whilst we often think of deaths and funerals for the grief and sadness that comes with them, they have long been filled with acts of love. When words are inadequate we often turn to rituals, traditions and symbolism to express these emotions of love and loss.
As burial spaces were cleaned up and reformed during the early years of Queen Victoria, mourning and funerary traditions became more extravagant, as new cemeteries such as the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (now Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park) offered well-designed, pleasant landscapes for “proper” and “decent” ceremonies to take place, rather than the squalid conditions of London’s overfilled churchyards. People from even the poorest communities would scrimp and save to ensure that their loved ones could avoid the cruel fate of anonymity in a paupers grave, and would often save towards a burial over paying for their own health care, or paying for a good education for their children, as Sir Edwin Chadwick commented in 1843.
For those who could afford lavish funerals, their ceremonies reflected the love of family and friends on a far grander scale than a simple burial. After the family washed and dressed the dead and placed them in their coffin or casket in their own homes, the caskets were usually left open to allow crowds of mourners to pay their respects and talk to and touch the deceased. The ceremony would usually also take place in the home. They would then be transported to the cemetery by horse and carriage (often decked out in full finery of black crepe and complete with plumes of feathers). Finally, six or eight of the nearest and dearest of the deceased would carry them to their final resting place.
These lavish funerals came at great expense and families often remained in mourning for up to two years which required a completely new mourning wardrobe at vast expense. It was considered bad luck (and bad taste) to keep mourning clothes for a second use. Today, funerals still act as expressions of love although the emphasis on the grand funeral as a show of love and devotion has been somewhat lost as time has progressed.
Once the burial had taken place, there is the headstone that is placed as an eternal memorial of love. Headstones declare the affection of those left behind for those who have passed away, for those who were lucky enough to be able to afford a headstone of course. The inscriptions found on headstones were often inspired by literature, poetry, and even song lyrics and they conveyed messages of both familial and romantic love as well as grief and sadness.
A lovely example of these messages can be found on the image on the left which depicts a parent’s sorrow for the loss of their 2-year-old son. It reads, “This lovely bud so young & fair called hence by early doom, just came to shew how sweet a flower in paradise to bloom.” These inscriptions remind us of the loving bond between the living and the dead. Other examples at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park include, “Tis better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all”, and, “She’s gone the one we loved so dear to her eternal rest, she’s gone to heaven we have no fear, she is forever blest.”
As well as the inscription, there were also more decorative elements to consider when looking for symbols of love in burial places, each with their own meaning behind them. The Victorians loved symbolism and often drew on ancient cultures for inspiration (such as the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians) to decorate their memorials. Flowers also had their own special symbolism with each species conveying a different meaning to those who understood the language of flowers. For those wishing to represent love or beauty on their headstones, a rose was often used and many of these can found throughout Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. Yarrow, honeysuckle or tulips could also represent declarations of everlasting love.
Other symbols included the clasping hands which showed the relationship between the person who had passed away and the loved one left behind and are often accompanied by words such as, “We’ll meet again”. The clasped hands also offered a symbol of hope for when the two would eventually meet again in the next life, and can be found used as a symbol of devotion as far back as the Roman period when it was used on burial urns that held cremated remains.
As a final note on acts of love in spaces of burial, it’s impossible to forget the mourners who visit and leave tokens of remembrance on the graves of their loved ones and tend to their burial places. People often leave tributes in the form of flowers, pennies and stones when visiting loved ones who have passed away, as well as cleaning and caring for them. In Jewish traditions, a visiting stone is often placed on the headstone or memorial of a loved one as a way of saying I remember you. In other cultures, fresh flowers are more traditional whilst unique items that represent the life of the person buried there may also be left in memoriam. This could be an emblem of their football team or a photo of their family members (although it is always important to check the rules of the cemetery before leaving non-biodegradable items on a grave). These objects, no matter how big or small, are endowed with meanings of love and devotion and again represent the loving connection between the living and the dead.
Next time you are walking through Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, or wherever your local burial place is, perhaps take a moment to look for the representations of love and affection that you can find as you wander past the headstones, and remember the loving lives of the people who were buried there.
Two huge stone blocks stand in the middle of Shandy Park, like a giant pair of dice rolled from on high. Their pitted surfaces attract moss and lichen, toddlers play hide and seek around them, and agile teenagers clamber to perch on top. But how did these enormous blocks come to be there? It was a question raised by Michelle Lindson, the Friends’ Community Development Coordinator who leads the Nature & Us project in Shandy Park. Intrigued, I set about researching their history.
Shandy Park has been a park for well over a century – having been landscaped as a recreation ground by the Metropolitan Public Gardens’ Association in 1885 – but prior to that, the site was home to the East London Cemetery (before the contemporary one opened in West Ham). There’s little evidence today of the former cemetery, apart from a clutch of old headstones wedged against the northern wall.
Opened in 1837, the East London Cemetery – also known as the Beaumont Burial Ground – pre-dates both Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841) and Victoria Park Cemetery (1845). They all formed part of the flurry of new cemeteries created to meet the increasing demand for burial space in early Victorian London, at a time when traditional churchyard burials were becoming impractical. Like the others, the East London Cemetery was set up as a private enterprise, seeking to attract customers: “…it is ornamentally planted with groves and shrubs, which afford a suitable accompaniment of foliage and flowers to the tombs, and commodious walks to the affectionate visitors to them… the approbation of the public is attested by upwards of 500 interments which took place therein last year. It is open for inspection every day, from one o’clock till sun-set.” (Morning Advertiser, 4 Oct 1838)
(Morning Advertiser, 4 Oct 1838)
As the rather flowery language indicates, the garden cemetery movement was in full flow; burial grounds were being designed not only for the dignified repose of the dead, but also for the pleasure of the living. Perhaps the two stone blocks were intended as part of this landscaping?
Local landowner, John Thomas Barber Beaumont (1774-1841), had first devised a plan for the cemetery in 1836. As the Globe newspaper reported: “[Beaumont] is now erecting a chapel, surrounding it with a high wall, it being his intention to have the land consecrated as a public cemetery, similar to the Kensal Green Cemetery [opened 1833]; broad gravel walks are now in progress, and an immense number of young trees are about to be planted, and the whole will be tastefully laid out.” (Globe, 28 Sept 1836).
Barber Beaumont had a colourful career – as an accomplished portrait painter, army officer, financier and philanthropist – and he’s remembered in the naming of Beaumont Square, where he established the Beaumont Philosophical Institution. There isn’t space here to tell his life story but I’d recommend nipping into the foyer of the People’s Palace at Queen Mary University, where an enormous slab affixed to the wall is inscribed – rather like a giant cv – with his many achievements. We’ll re-visit the memorial slab later, but in the meantime let’s return to the pair of stone blocks. A further search online at the British Newspaper Archive (a remarkably rich resource for local and family historians alike) reveals several snippets about the arrival of two granite blocks in October 1836.
(Morning Advertiser, 8 Oct 1836)
It must have been quite a spectacle, seeing two 15-ton blocks each being hauled by a team of 13 horses across London Bridge and through the East End, to be used for “monumental purposes” at the East London Cemetery. Bingo! I’d tracked down the stone blocks, or at least I presumed so. But, on further reflection, it didn’t quite stack up. Another report in the Manchester Times described the stones as being “in the form of a pedestal, about ten feet high and five feet square”, whereas the two Shandy Park blocks are almost cubic, about six feet all round. I decided to research further.
(1870 Ordnance Survey map)
The first detailed Ordnance Survey map (1870) shows the layout of the cemetery. The two stone cubes are not specifically marked, but by overlaying a present-day map it appears that they sat either side of the main north-south entrance drive, just outside the central circular path. However, a 1900 map appears to show two stones in the centre of the circular path, around ten metres or so from the present-day location. Had these giant stones been moved since 1900? It seemed a little unlikely, given their sheer size.
Newspaper reports on the death of Barber Beaumont in May 1841 provide a few further clues:
“It is now three full years ago since Mr Beaumont caused a tomb to be prepared for himself in front of the chapel of the cemetery, two immense pedestals of granite pointing out the spot as the last resting-place of himself and family, and a tomb contiguous as that of his friend Dr Fellowes. With a somewhat eccentric spirit, Mr Beaumont also caused, about the same period, a coffin of beautiful oak to be made, and by his order to undergo the process commonly called “Kyan’s process for prevention from dry rot.” The coffin was then sent to Mr Urnaney, his undertaker, in whose possession it has since remained, till it was this week assigned to the melancholy purpose for which it had been so long provided. A very beautifully executed bust of Mr Beaumont, done at Rome some years ago, was also placed in the chapel of the cemetery two years ago, with a plain marble tablet beneath it, and it is said that an inscription was also prepared, which will now shortly be placed on it.” (The Sun, London, 21 May 1841)
One of his obituaries described Barber Beaumont as “a friend of the humbler classes”, but there was nothing humble about his burial. With such particular preparations, he clearly wanted to be laid to rest in some style, taking centre stage in the cemetery he’d designed. As the funeral report indicates, there were “two immense pedestals of granite pointing out the spot” of his grave in the centre of the circular pathway.
At this point, a dip into the London Picture Archive online helped clear up my confusion. A photo taken to show the view northwards through Shandy Park (1957) shows not one, but two pairs of stones; in the background of the photo you can just about make out the pair of stone cubes that had triggered my research, whilst in the foreground are two taller stone pedestals. The pedestals are topped with decorative carvings, and the left one is inscribed to indicate that Barber Beaumont’s grave “was 8 feet E from this stone”. You can view the photo here.
Discovering that photo certainly helped clarify matters. So, it was the arrival of these larger granite pedestals – and not the smaller stone cubes – that was reported in the newspapers in 1836. And these same pedestals were the ones marked in the centre of the 1900 Ordnance Survey map. What has become of them since 1957 is less clear, based on my research so far. The arrival of the other two stone blocks appears not to be documented, but it seems most likely that they were brought in around a similar time as part of the cemetery landscaping, used to mark the points where the entrance drive opened out to the circular pathway.
As a burial ground, the East London Cemetery had a relatively short working life; having opened in 1837, it closed for burials in 1853, eclipsed by the much larger Tower Hamlets Cemetery a short distance to the east. By the time of the 1870 Ordnance Survey map, the former chapel had been re-purposed into a school (and demolished by 1894). And in 1885, Barber Beaumont’s son allowed the cemetery to be re-landscaped as a public garden: “Laid out in neatly-gravelled walks, with rustic seats beneath the cypress and willow tress, and above all, beautifully laid out with the choicest of summer flowers, in the most artistic manner, by Miss [Fanny] Wilkinson, the honorary landscape gardener of the [Metropolitan Public Gardens] Association” it provided “a veritable oasis in the surrounding desert of poverty and wretchedness.” (East London Observer, 4 July 1885).
Many of the gravestones were, presumably, removed or repositioned as part of this re-landscaping. Barber Beaumont’s mortal remains were removed to Kensal Green Cemetery – where you can still see his finely sculpted table tomb, prominently positioned on the central avenue – but it’s less clear whether the other burials were left in situ or re-interred elsewhere.
Barber Beaumont portrait (1822) and his family grave at Kensal Green Cemetery
The enormous slab inscribed with Barber Beaumont’s attributes and achievements remained at the East London Cemetery – “fixed in the wall on the left of the Shandy Street entrance to the children’s portion of the Recreation Ground” (1912) – but was relocated to the foyer of the People’s Palace at Queen Mary University in 1979. That is indeed a fitting place for it to reside, as the People’s Palace had been made possible by funding from the Beaumont Trust and – in the footsteps of Beaumont’s Philosophical Institution – the People’s Palace continued to enable the “intellectual improvement, and rational recreation and amusement” of East Enders envisaged by his will.
To this day, the People’s Palace and Shandy Park remain as part of Beaumont’s legacy in the East End. Each time I pass them I’m reminded of his indomitable spirit, as captured rather dramatically on his memorial slab:
“His Ability, combined with singular Industry, Economy, and Perseverance, raised him to a state of honourable Independence, But, as he became Affluent he did not become Idle. His character, always Instinct with Energy, led him to prefer a life of useful Activity to one of inglorious Ease… May his Good Example be prolific of similar Glorious Deeds till Ignorance, Superstition, and Depravity shall Vanish from the Land!”
by Graham Barker (Walk East)
– Claire Slack (Heritage Officer)
As the Heritage Officer here at the Cemetery Park, I am privileged to spend a good chunk of my time at work helping families track down their long-since passed relatives. These relatives found themselves at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park once their lives had come to an end, and it is part of my role to help reunite them with their family, by working through our archives to match the burial numbers with the names and stories. With 370,000 people buried in the Cemetery Park there will always be more stories to uncover and each enquiry brings us a tiny bit closer to understanding the vast array of histories that belong to those residing here.
Every few months I will be sharing some of those stories with you, right here on our heritage blog. There will be stories of people from all across the world, from dockworkers and watchmakers to Music Hall singers and war heroes, all of whom you will find surrounding you as you walk the tranquil, woodland paths of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
The last few months have been busy ones for myself and the heritage volunteer team, as enquiries have rolled in and research has continued on our book (more details on that coming soon). We’ve had to juggle ever-changing restrictions on work and volunteering as the Coronavirus pandemic raged on. Since I began in my role back in the middle of September, myself and the team have answered 55 grave enquires from people as far away as Australia and as close as Mile End Road looking for loved ones long gone. Thanks to all of our enquirers who have shared these stories with us, sadly all of them have rather sad endings!
Margaret (Mogs) Abbot was born to a Scots/Irish Traveller family in March 1878. The family worked the canals in the West Midlands but, as so many often did they eventually found themselves moving to East London. In 1894, just before her 16th birthday and with a few fibs told about her age, she married William Branton who was a few years older and living next door to the family. The pair quickly started a family and within months she was pregnant with the 1st of her 13 children. Many of her family suffered from TB, killing her mother and her 10-year-old son Henry and, eventually, it killed her too at the young age of 39 whilst two of her sons were away serving in WW1. Her husband William was killed 9 months later in a dock explosion leaving their 17-year-old daughter Julia to raise the surviving 5 siblings. Margaret is buried in a public grave, and sadly we have been unable to find a headstone for her. As headstones could be very expensive it is possible she was never memorialised, especially as the family had experienced so much loss in so short a time span.
Arthur Lovell was a costermonger (a seller of fruit and vegetables) before he volunteered to be a soldier at the beginning of WW1. He went out with one of the very first battalions in 1914. Despite being wounded twice he survived the war and returned home to his job as a costermonger. 10 years later Arthur was observing the 2 minutes silence at Armistice Day celebrations in Burgess Street, Limehouse. As the silence concluded Arthur noticed a young girl in danger of being hit by a lorry. In an act of selflessness, he snatched her away, putting himself in the way of the lorry as he overbalanced. He received a full military funeral and is buried in a private grave not far from the Westwood monument, his headstone now broken. You can find out more about Arthur over on the Cemetery Club website.
William Mitchell was an only child to a ship’s carpenter who served with the British army in India in the 1880s. Whilst serving his father was lost at sea and William took the news incredibly hard – he tried to cut his own throat when he heard the news. He was sent back to the UK to attend a lunatic asylum but for reasons unknown, he never arrived and instead met and married Margaret. According to his daughters, he rarely worked but despite depending on relief from Poplar Workhouse the pair had 12 children. William was also captain of the Bow Gasworks cricket team. He died in April 1935 and is buried in a public grave.
Elizabeth Fitzgerald and John Pickett were both buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in 1867. Elizabeth was born in Nova Scotia and spent many years in Ireland before moving to the East End of London. John was born in Northamptonshire and enlisted in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment. Both Elizabeth and John eventually went on to have their own children who separately emigrated to Western Australia. Several years later, John’s son Edward Pickett married Alice Fitzgerald, connecting the families. Despite never having met the pair now share great, great, great-grandchildren and are buried within a few feet of each other in public graves at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
If you have a story to share, or would like help searching for a relative or loved one at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are thrilled to announce that we are now accepting tenders from heritage and architectural professionals for an exciting new project.
The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park are in the process of creating a Conservation Management Plan to help us better understand and conserve our history, the biodiversity of our site and the things our community love best about Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. The Conservation Management Plan has kindly been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and will involve input from our community, our stakeholders and from heritage and biodiversity professionals.
A Conservation Management Plan is a document that will help us:
- Describe our heritage
- Understand why the Cemetery Park matters and to whom
- Understand what is happening to our heritage and what needs preserving
- Understand what the key issues are that will affect the Cemetery Park
- Plan conservation and restoration works for the future
- Improve public access
- Plan activities that engage the whole community
The Conservation Management Plan will help Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park plan for our future. Understanding what needs to be done, why it needs to be done and who will do the work is vital. This knowledge will help us to then create a maintenance plan to care for the Cemetery Park to guide us on what needs doing on a day to day basis. From who cuts the grass and plants the spring daffodils, to when the health and safety checks need completing and how we conduct cleaning and repairs on our vast array of headstones and monuments.
To find out more about the Conservation Management Plan, or to express an interest in tendering to work with us, please contact our Heritage Officer, Claire, on email@example.com. You can also find copies of our invitation to tender and our project brief below.
This year we were unable to have our usual ceremony for Remembrance Sunday due to the second Coronavirus lockdown. We realise this was disappointing to those of you who usually attend but the safety of our community was our highest priority at this difficult time.
Whilst we were not able to welcome the normal crowds, it did not mean that we were unable to remember those who gave their lives to secure and protect our freedom. Many local people visited our memorials and paid their respects and laid a poppy or a wreath in solitary acts of remembrance. The staff from Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park also laid wreaths at our war memorials as well as in the area of the Cemetery Park where many soldiers killed in action were buried.
We were thrilled that the Venerable Roger Preece was able to record a video for us this year in place of our usual, in person ceremony. The Venerable Roger Preece is a Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, a retreat house and community cafe charity in East London. You can watch his video below or on our YouTube channel here.
We would welcome anyone who wished to lay a wreath or a poppy on our memorials on Armistice Day this coming Wednesday. We hope that we are able to resume our usual ceremony in 2021.
Hello from the heritage team here at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park! It’s been a while since we’ve posted an update and lots has happened since our Remembrance Day blog in 2019.
It’s been a challenging year for the team. The pandemic has meant a lot of unknowns for the Cemetery Park but we’ve survived! We have lots of exciting things in store over the coming months as Cemetery Park Online and heritage volunteering resume and work on our new heritage book (details tba but please get in touch if you’d like to get involved) continues.
Cemetery Park Online has been a great success. We began the talks way back in March and included everything from gravestone symbolism and London bats to growing in small spaces and policing in the park. You can find some of our talks on Youtube here. The next heritage related Cemetery Park Online will be with MA Folklore graduate Jaymie Tapsell on East End Customs and Traditions. You can book your free ticket to their talk here.
In September we welcomed our new Heritage Officer, Claire, to the team. Claire will be spending the coming year or two developing a
conservation management plan for the site (thanks to some funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund) and planning new activities to get our community more involved in the heritage of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. We hope this plan will help us to better understand our history and give us some ideas for what our future will look like as well as making the Cemetery Park more engaging and more accessible. There will be lots of opportunities to get involved over the coming months but please feel free to email Claire on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to lend a hand!
Finally, our Remembrance Day ceremony this year will be virtual due to Covid restrictions. More information will be announced as soon as it is available. Keep an eye on our social media pages over the coming weeks!